March 22, 2023

In The News: COVID Backlash Hobbles Public Health and Future Pandemic Response

The Washington Post reports on the degree to which litigation and legislation have reduced the nation’s public health system’s ability to function. If another pandemic wave or different pandemic were to strike, many locales nationwide could not close businesses or schools to avert spread, mitigation efforts like masking would not be possible, and federal agencies could not enact any testing or vaccination campaigns. Public health authority has been limited in at least 30 states, according to analysis by several public health organizations.

The movement is viewed as a rejection of government measures enacted during the pandemic that led to confusion and anger. In addition to the efforts of conservative and libertarian legislatures and attorneys general, individuals seeking to restrict pandemic mitigation ran for, and many won, county commission and health board positions where they led restrictions on public health departments’ abilities to enforce established safety measures. Many public health experts warn this has resulted in a severely hamstrung capacity to protect people from infectious diseases that easily spread across states and municipalities.

 Supporters of the efforts argue they are fighting against government overreach and the concentration of power in too few hands. The expertise of those hands does not appear to be a point worthy of confidence. Despite evidence of public health measures proving successful in saving lives, one study found vaccines prevented an additional 3.2 million deaths in the U.S. alone, many do not believe the evidence. While there are admissions that several problems were of public health community’s own making, they maintain they acted in good faith in the face of a novel pathogen.

The next pandemic will be met by a patchwork of government abilities unable to adequately meet the moment. Additionally, legal challenges and erosion of public faith have altered the view of public health and vaccine mandates for school admission. The recent measles outbreak in Ohio could be traced to the state legislature stripping health commissioner’s ability to quarantine someone suspected of having an infectious disease. Further, many public health departments are restricted in addressing issues such as E. coli and hepatitis outbreaks. Though restrictive public health efforts and vaccine hesitancy existed prior to the pandemic, the resulting backlash to COVID-19 strategies places the country at greater risk of a future pandemic or crisis.

PIDS member Andy Pavia commented on the story, “The backlash against public health is one of the most dangerous consequences of the politicization of the pandemic. Public health authority allows rapid, science-driven responses to emerging threats. Some restrictions may have been ineffective in hindsight, others, such as school closures continued after we had developed better and safer alternatives, but these laws are akin to banning the fire department because in hindsight, the response to a fire could have been improved. We will be left without our defenses when the next pandemic ignites.”

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